The odds are against the Falcons making the playoffs, but let’s say they do. (They’ll need to beat Dallas here Sunday; let’s say they do that, too.) Should they qualify, it would mark their third consecutive postseason appearance. Know how many times in their history they’ve done that? Once – from 2010 through 2012. The quarterback then was Matt Ryan, who’s also the quarterback now.
Wait. I’m not done. Know how many times the Falcons had reached the playoffs in consecutive years before Ryan showed up? Never. Over the 42 seasons predating the Matty Ice Age, this franchise reached the postseason eight times. Since he got here in 2008, they’ve done it six times. If we add the playoff runs of the second-, third- and fourth-best quarterbacks in Falcons annals – Steve Bartkowski, Michael Vick and Chris Chandler – we get six.
The point being: We around here have gotten to know Matthew Thomas Ryan very well – of the Falcons’ past 179 games (counting playoffs), he has started 177, which is flat-out ridiculous – but rarely do we say out loud what’s indisputably the truth. Namely, that he’s the best player (not just the best quarterback) in franchise history.
We were conditioned early to regard Ryan as what he was not. He was drafted to replace the franchise quarterback who’d gone to prison, and there were those who insisted he would never be better than Vick. (Wrong.) Then we doubted if he could lead this team to the Super Bowl. (He did.) Even now, in Year 11, we tune in ESPN and get caught up in the E-word debate – I will not type the silly word itself, but it rhymes with “petite” – and we take as gospel that Ryan, as grand as he has been, is somehow not grand enough.
Meaning: He’s not Brady/Rodgers/Brees/Roethlisberger. I won’t argue that any of those four is anything less than an all-timer. Tom Brady: best ever. Aaron Rodgers: most talented QB ever. Drew Brees: apt to win his first MVP trophy at 39. Ben Roethlisberger: consummate winner. But at this moment, what is there about Ryan that relegates him, just below the favored four?
You don’t need to shout. All together now: “He hasn’t won a Super Bowl.” And he hasn’t. That’s the fact, Jack. But here, not to get all Kellyanne on you, is where we offer alternative facts.
In Ryan’s one Super Bowl, he was better than Brady/Rodgers/Brees/Roethlisberger were in any of theirs, and they’ve been in 13. Ryan’s passer rating Feb. 5, 2017, was 144.1, fourth-best in Super annals, trailing only Phil Simms, Joe Montana and Jim Plunkett. Those three quarterbacks saw their teams win big. Ryan’s team should have. If they played that game again, the Falcons would be more likely to prevail 42-10 than lose in overtime. That losing was some fault of Ryan’s is a big fat lie. (He didn’t touch the ball in OT, you’ll recall.)
Ryan in that Super Bowl – 284 yards on 23 passes. His yards-per-attempt average was 12.3, also fourth-best in Super history. His completion percentage was 73.9, sixth-best. Brady threw for 466 yards that day, but – this remains incredible – had nearly as many incompletions (21) as Ryan did passes. Brady eventually dinked and dunked the Falcons into submission, but his passer rating (95.5) was the second-lowest of his five Super wins, and Robert Alford’s pick-6 was a big reason the Patriots trailed 28-3. Put it this way: In the biggest game of his life, Mr. Tier 2 was statistically superior to the greatest ever. And we hold that AGAINST him?
This year, Ryan leads the NFL in passing yards per game. (He’s 46 YPG ahead of Brees, FYI.) Ryan is fourth in passer rating and completion percentage, tied for fourth in touchdowns. He’s not the reason the Falcons are 4-5; he’s the reason they aren’t 1-8. We once regarded his MVP season as a career year, but this one is of a piece: Yards per game and completion percentage are better; touchdowns per game are roughly the same; yards per attempt, while down from that peak, is still the second-best of his career.
Career passing numbers are problematic, given how skewed the modern game is toward slinging the pig. (Fran Tarkenton retired as the career leader in passing yards; he’s not in the top 10 today.) But here, for comparative purposes, we go: Ryan is fifth in yards per game, ahead of Brady, Rodgers and Roethlisberger; he’s fifth in completion percentage, ahead of Rodgers and Brady; he’s 10th in passer rating, ahead of Roethlisberger; he’s ninth in interception percentage, ahead of Brees.
Again, this isn’t to say that the Tier 1 guys don’t belong. This is only to suggest that Ryan does, too – and has for a while. This is his 11th NFL season. (That’s another thing: At 33, he’s younger than Brady/Rodgers/et al.) Ryan has worked under four offensive coordinators; should he make the Pro Bowl this season, he’ll have done it under all four.
He has spent 10 years and nine games trying to outscore his own defense, which over the past decade never finished among the league’s top 10 in yards against and is third-worst now. Brady and Roethlisberger have won seven Super Bowls between them. How many would they won have won with Falcons-like defenses? And really, isn’t the issue of Super Bowl “wins” for a quarterback something a faux stat, like wins for a pitcher have become? (Jacob deGrom just took the Cy Young with 10.)
The only reason Ryan isn’t a Tier 1 fixture is the lack of a Super Bowl “win” – and had his team held on that day, he’d have been the game’s MVP. (And he didn’t call the overtime coin toss wrong; the Pats called it right.)
Ryan was the reason the Falcons made the Super Bowl. He’s the reason they’ve been a very good team for the better part of the past 10 years, and he’s the reason they still could make something of this one. He’s not just the best quarterback this team has had; he’s among the best there has ever been. There, I’ve said it.
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